Indigenous artists reaching new audiences with online concerts during pandemic

As performance venues lie dormant across Canada due to public health orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, some Indigenous musicians are continuing to connect with fans, old and new, through online concerts.

One of them will be this Sunday, as a number of Canadian media companies, including CBC, collaborate on a 90-minute special featuring music and messages from Canadian artists and entertainers. 

The program will be aired on television, radio and online. Included in the lineup of celebrity performers are Buffy Sainte-Marie and William Prince. 

Prince is one of many First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians in Canada who have used social media platforms to stay connected with their fans while adhering to physical distancing.

“Truth is you caught me in the middle of what I’d be doing anyway, and we just decided to put a camera on it,” Prince told viewers as he strummed his guitar in his first online performance in March. 

“I’m super thankful for the opportunity to play some music, and I get to sleep in my own bed after this tour, after this gig tonight,” he said. 

Prince was selected to perform as part of a live streamed concert series by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in collaboration with Facebook Canada called #CanadaPerforms. It’s tied to a $700,000 COVID-19 relief fund to support Canadian artists and authors.

According to the NAC website, artists are able to apply to receive a $1,000 payment for the online performances.

‘It brought me to tears’

Chelsey June and Jaaji, also known as the folk-rock duo Twin Flames, were in the midst of touring Canada’s west coast in January when they began to see the impacts of the novel coronavirus in other countries.

June is Métis, of Algonquin-Cree and French Canadian descent, and Jajii is of Inuk and Mohawk descent, from Nunavik and Kahnawake. 

Chelsey and Jaaji June, also known as the folk-rock duo Twin Flames, were in the midst of touring their music across Canada’s west coast in January when they began to see the impacts of COVID-19 in other countries. (Dave Brosha/Twin Flames)

The artists, who are married with four children, made the decision to postpone their scheduled spring and summer concerts. 

“We were very scared, especially financially,” said June. 

“When all the tours and all of the shows started getting cancelled one after another, it was like, how are we going to feed our family? How are we going to pay rent?”
  
Artists across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are trying to recoup money already spent on future tour dates and albums, June said.

The circumstances have given them more time to focus on their creative pursuits and their entrepreneurial skills, they said, because they manage their own business affairs. Prior to the physical distancing requirements, they’d spent thousands of dollars on travel costs for their five-person band to tour their upcoming album.

“When you don’t have a record label that’s incurring all these costs, it is a very expensive industry,” said June.

“So it’s kind of like all of that money is in limbo … It’s been a lot of readjusting and a lot of learning, but I think it’s all things that we are really going to keep with us as we continue going forward in this industry.”

Performing together since 2014, Twin Flames has played over 1,000 live shows. They were also selected by the National Arts Centre to do a live-streamed concert as part of the #CanadaPerforms series.

Their performance had about 8,100 viewers, one of the largest audiences they’ve played for, they said.

“It brought me to tears,” said June.

“That [live audience] energy is something that you don’t necessarily feel through the screen, but watching all the live comments come in kind of makes it as close as we can get to feeling it. I think this is the most grateful I’ve ever been for social media in my entire life.”

June said that trying to get thousands of people to discover new performers at concert venues was sometimes “like pulling teeth.” 

Jaaji said because online audiences, from the comfort of their homes, are focused solely on one act instead of various acts playing in the same live show, the situation could actually increase their fan base. 

“It’s made a huge difference … we appreciate playing again. I love playing on stage; I love that feeling, the rush of playing for people and engaging with the fans,” said Jaaji. 

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